Communicating the Social Impact of Museums - MuseumNext

Communicating the Social Impact of Museums

I would hope that anyone working in museums believes in the positive effect that they have. They change lives, enrich communities and makes our cities better places to live? But while we talk within the sector the positive social impact that our institutions make, we’re not very good at sharing this side of our work with the public.

From our advertising to when a visitor walks through the front door, museums act like they are selling only an experience.

We show objects, we show artworks, and we show happy visitors, and that’s perfect for getting people through the door, but aren’t museums about more than being edutainment or tourist honey traps putting on blockbuster shows for ever increasing crowds?

Do the people working in our museums not think that their work is more meaningful than that?

Shouldn’t a visitor to your museum feel that they are supporting an organization with values that coincide with their own, a place that makes a meaningful difference to its community?

Ironically while museums too often hide their good work (or perhaps just assume that it’s understood), retail brands are desperately trying to align themselves with causes.

In February, Nike launched a new campaign which speaks out over inequality, encouraging people to take the fairness and respect they see on the court or pitch and translate them off the field.

This campaign comes with a $35 t-shirt, because nothing says inequality like expensive leisurewear.

A month earlier Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the firm would hire 10,000 refugees over five years in response to Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees access to the US.

In the UK, Kenco coffee is known not only for its taste but also for retraining young Honduran gang members to be independent coffee farmers with their coffee v gangs initiative.

These companies are doing this because their research tells them that millennial are 60% more likely to engage with brands that discuss social causes.

They used to say sex sells; now activism does.

Our research at MuseumNext has shown that those aged under thirty think that a museum that engages in social action would be more relevant to them.

So there is real value in museums framing what they do in this way and communicating the meaningful work that they do within their communities.

This needs to be done, not in an annual report which only a handful of people will read, but more boldly.

Can you display in the reception of your museum a dashboard of social action that shows month by month what your institution is achieving beyond visitor figures?

Can you hang banners outside the museum that highlight the impact that you have on your community by working with for example people with dementia or at risk youths, rather than just talking about your exhibitions? If not, can you at least put them on the side of your donations boxes?

ABOVE: Facts and figures from National Museums Liverpool in a fantastic film.

We need to use our skills as storytellers to communicate the wider work that museums do in a way that doesn’t just ‘preach to the choir’ or ‘patronise the marginalized.’

I think that just as with the brands mentioned above, this can change the perception that people have of museums.

While we might not like to admit it, some people do think of museums as aloof, white and middle-class institutions.

By talking about work that weaves through the broader community, we can start to change that perception and get people who don’t currently engage with our museums to give us a chance.

I think that museums are already engaged in an enormous amount of social good, and this seems to be a rising tide.

But it’s not enough to take social action; we need to shout about it.

About the Author

For sixteen years Jim Richardson led a creative agency working with some of the world’s best known museums.

His work helped these institutions to encourage arts audiences to take that next positive step, converting a passing interest into a ticket purchase, a website hit into an actual visit, an appreciation into real involvement?

Through this work he became interested in how technology was changing audience expectations. In 2007 he started to document ‘what’s next for museum?’ on a blog, and two years later he organised the first MuseumNext conference to expand on this question.

MuseumNext now takes place in cultural capitals around the world, bringing together a community of museum professionals with a shared ambition to make museums the best that they can be.

  • Essex Havard

    I am a consultant in adult learning and the culture sector in the UK (ALACS) . I cannot disagree with what this article says, in as far as it goes. However, the provider of a service (however transformative) is not best placed to meaningfully promote its perceived success/impact. Museums need to a. measure their social impact and, b. get those whose society has been impacted to shout about it. I’ve worked in both sectors for close on 30 years and I am tired of museums (despite many great exceptions) telling me they make a difference without showing me the evidence. Until regular, incontrovertible evidence appears, museums will continue to struggle to prove their societal worth to those who hold the keys to the money….

    • Jim Richardson

      Hi Essex

      Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I think that you’re completely right about evidence. Perhaps that’s something that the Museums Association in the UK should be looking at as part of their ongoing Museums Change Lives campaign.

      In terms of speaking about the impact. I see this as being similar to charities. Cancer Research does incredible work and people speak highly of them, but they still advertise the impact they have because that amplifies the message and attracts more supporters.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.


      • Essex Havard

        But cancer charities can clearly show impact. Their work funds research which has, over decades, raised survivability and quality of remaining life. My point still stands. Museums need to leave their echo chambers….

  • I am fully in support of this article.
    Watts Gallery-Artists’ Village a campus of museum, chapel, artist house and
    studio and pottery, was founded on the ethos of Art for All. We have recently had the benefit of a report
    Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’
    Village, written by Dr Helen Bowcock

    The report identifies the different dimensions of social value delivered by the
    Surrey-based Trust and demonstrates the commitment of the organisation to
    delivering ‘Art for All’.

    Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and
    Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village reports that in 2016/17 there were
    17,936 engagements in learning activities, up from 1740 in 2012/13. It also highlights the Trust’s success in:

    – Working with schools to improve educational outcomes, including

    – Delivering skills and training through an active and
    inclusive community of over 300 volunteers.;

    – Improving employment opportunities for young people by
    offering apprenticeships in marketing, estate management, catering,
    curating and conservation.;

    – Building confidence, motivation and skills amongst
    socially excluded and vulnerable groups including young people At-Risk,
    lone parents and adults affected by mental health issues.

    – Contributing to the education of women prisoners and young

    Jim Richardson is right in saying that what we need to do is frame the work that we carry out in Museums in
    context of the impact we have on our communities. There is more work to do on this. We are thinking about how those who visit our
    Tea shop, for example, can see from the displays that not only is there a rich selection of exhibitions on offer, but also that last week we spent the whole
    week working with young offenders in HMP/YOI Feltham, or that in June we will be celebrating an exhibition produced by women prisoners in HMP Send. Let’s celebrate the magnificent contribution
    that museums make to so many.

  • Gordon Johnston

    Any evidence also needs to be more than thinly disguised advocacy. This has been an issue in arts evaluation to the point where, arguably, the ‘arts’ have lost relevance in wider social policy development because of mistrust regarding past ‘evidence’ relating to social impact. That said, it is a difficult area. The Cultural Development Network in Melbourne, Australia have been doing some interesting work around evaluation.

  • Marije de Nood

    Almost three years ago we (Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Holland) organised an exhibition about Charity through the ages. We asked people with various backgrounds (refugees, buddies, homeless people, pschyatric patients) to share their stories with our visitors. Everyday three of them were present in the exhibition and had very interesting and sometimes heart moving conversations with visitors.
    Today I had a cup of coffee with one of these volunteers, a former homeless man. He brought with him a bunch of flowers telling us (again) how much he appriciated being a volunteer in our exhibition. He is still grateful for that.

    Museums have far more impact then they can imagine. It is time to – as you write it – shout about it and also be very very proud about it.

  • Kimmo Levä

    Museums have expanded from the cultural silo into other silos in the social, educational and business sectors. Actually, there is a great deal of evidence attesting to the fact that museums have produced good results in these areas (see refs below). However, we have tended to share these results only within our own circles, rather than among the decision-makers in these sectors. The biggest problem, however, is that we have continued to provide these services for free or by using (dwindling) cultural resources, and hence these new tasks have not generated new resources as is usually the case. For these reasons, it is little wonder that our message is not getting through. To a large extent, we only have ourselves to blame for this development. We are doing society a great service, but museums are being forced to close down because of lack of funds. Unfortunately, it seems that the ”Museums change lives” strategy has been good for society but not that good for museums.